Chancellor: Fight Against State Regulation is ‘Battle We Still Have to Win’

George Osborne told local press journalists and publishers at the Newspaper Conference annual lunch yesterday (Wednesday) that the “incredibly important” battle against state regulation of the press is “one we still have to win.”

Speaking at the event, chaired by Archant Anglia political editor Annabelle Dickson, the Chancellor spoke at length about the importance of free speech to society, the various threats to press freedom such as misuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), the valuable role of the local press in holding the powerful to account.

The Chancellor said: “We want to ensure that independent self regulation of the press against those who would impose some kind of state run regulation. It’s very good to see Sir Alan [Moses, IPSO chairman] here, listening to this. But I think that’s an incredibly important battle we still have to win.”

“There are battles to be fought but a free and vibrant fearless press is the bulwark against an over mighty state and it’s a protector of the liberties of the citizen and of the resources of the citizen as well.”

The Chancellor spoke in detail about the campaigning role of local and regional newspapers, citing several examples of campaigns from across the UK, and the industry’s adaptation to the digital age, highlighting the threat to the industry from the public sector.

He said: “There are over 1,100 local and regional titles but there are actually 1,700 websites now run by regional newspaper groups and I think you are showing the way in how to adapt to the really disruptive nature of this new technology and I very much agree with some of the work that you have done at the News Media Association in highlighting the challenge you face from publicly funded organisations, above all the BBC, and the threat that can pose to local and independent news gathering and I think there must be a way forward for the BBC to help support local and independent news gathering. I know that it’s something Adrian [Jeakings, NMA chairman] has also spoken powerfully about and I think it’s something the BBC should address.”

Speaking about shared interests between politicians and the press, the Chancellor said: “The civic institutions of our country would not function well without you. If you were not reporting what was going on in local council meetings the local democracy would be something of a joke and councillors would not get the credit for the things they get right nor be held to account for the things they get wrong.

“If you didn’t respond to the appeals from the local police or witnesses then those witnesses would not come forward and crimes would go unsolved. If you weren’t reporting on local court cases, the magistrates court, the crown court, then people would not see their local criminal justice system at work.

The Chancellor cited campaigns from the Western Morning News, Archant and the Staffordshire Newsletter as examples of strong local press campaigning, adding:   “The real prize here should go to Graeme Demianyk [Western Morning News political editor] who reported that David Cameron couldn’t speak to Barack Obama on his Cornish holiday and now we have a national roaming strategy.”

“Those are campaigns for more resources for the areas and communities you speak out for and that’s a really important part of what you do but there are also the difficult and dogged campaigns that you pursue to expose wrongdoing and the remarkable campaign run by the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail on the Trojan horse scandal and the way that children in Birmingham were failed by schools I think is an absolute classic of its kind.”

“You are the civic lifeblood of our country and however sometimes irritating and frustrating and difficult you are for Members of Parliament you are also essential for the communities that we aspire to represent and you hold us to account for that and I think there’s more we can do to make sure that you have access to the information you need, that there’s transparency, that you can see where money’s been spent at both the local and national level.”

The Chancellor spoke in depth on a variety of topics such as transport, elected mayors, UK cities, the budget, and answered questions posed by local editors and journalists based in Westminster.  

He described press freedom as “an incredibly precious commodity, it is fundamental to who we are as a country, to our liberties and rights” and cited previous fights for press freedom such as the fight to end the licensing of newspapers by the state, the creation of the Parliamentary press gallery, and the battle to end stamp duty on newspapers, adding that “this generation” also had to fight for press freedom.

The Chancellor continued: “And I think there are some issues out there which I want to just briefly mention which we should be a little concerned about. I think the inappropriate use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act as a tool used to fight against serious crime, and yet has been used to investigate journalists’ and the sources that journalists have; that it not what Parliament wanted that Act for, it’s not appropriate, and it’s something that of course if the prosecuting authorities and criminal justice system can’t address, it’s something I think that the Government will have to address.

Delivering the vote of thanks, Adrian Jeakings said: “This year has also seen the launch of our new, post-Leveson, independent regulator IPSO. Its chairman, Sir Alan Moses, is with us today. Some of those who would suppress our work have suggested that IPSO is the industry’s patsy, but no one who has met Sir Alan would doubt his independence.

“And finally, Lord Black of Brentwood, who many of you will know as Guy Black, has been elected as president of ENPA, the European Newspaper Publishers Association, removing any doubt over at least one part of Britain’s involvement in Europe.

“Mr Osborne, I hope that you and your colleagues in Government recognise the importance of free speech, and the need for newspapers, local or national, in print or online, to be able to report fearlessly on the actions of the powerful.”